Words: Elaine Quinn (November 2017)
Image Credits: Open Source
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Wild Law – A Manifesto for Earth Justice

Author: Cormac Cullinan

More information and purchase/support: https://www.greenbooks.co.uk/wild-law

READING ‘WILD LAW – A MANIFESTO FOR EARTH JUSTICE’ BY CORMAC CULLINAN IS A PROCESS OF RADICAL RE-EDUCATION (OR RADICAL DE-EDUCATION) FOR A LAWYER IN THESE TIMES. When the foundations of our governance and legal systems are being described and exposed as fundamentally flawed, and when we instinctively sense that this is indeed the case, it can be a cause on the one hand for despair and on the other for deep curiosity and engagement.  For those lawyers that are open to hear what it has to say, reading the book is an exciting and transformative experience. For others, the premise of the book may seem like a “blasphemous proposition” particularly when Cullinan states: … we are devising our legal philosophies and laws without reference to the ‘primary texts’ (i.e. nature) and seeking answers in libraries that do not contain those answers.Many lawyers and law schools will find (or at least ought to find) this proposition deeply disturbing. Is it really possible that the approaches adopted by the Yales, Oxfords and Sorbonnes of this world could be wrong?”

The first edition of ‘Wild Law’ was published fifteen years ago in 2002; the second edition was published in 2011. With the rapidly growing public awareness of the deteriorating state of the planet and the climate, while still radical, its propositions for law are likely to be less shocking and disturbing today than they were when the book was first published. One review of the book highlights its far-reaching impact: “It has been seminal in informing and inspiring the global movement to recognise rights for Nature – a movement destined to shape the twenty-first century as significantly as the human rights movements shaped the twentieth century.” The core premise is the call for us all to recognise the extreme anthropocentric (human-centred) nature of our legal and governance systems and, from there, to transition with wisdom and integrity towards an eco-centric (earth-centred) perspective.

The word anthropocentric can be defined as: “regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to God or animals.” Wikipedia provides: “Anthropocentrism (… from GreekAncient Greek: … ánthrōpos, “human being”; and Ancient Greek: kéntron, “center”) the belief that considers human beings to be the most significant entity of the universe and interprets or regards the world in terms of human values and experiences. The term can be used interchangeably with humanocentrism, and some refer to the concept as human supremacy or human exceptionalism.” While there may be disagreements over the precise meaning of the term, surely most of us would generally resist this worldview because of an instinctive recognition that the existence of animals, insects, trees, forests, rivers, mountains, rocks, grass etc. has equal (some may even argue greater) value to that of humans.

And yet? Our legal and governance systems are largely structured, and operate, as if anthropocentrism were a correct and justifiable viewpoint. In a chapter titled ‘The conceit of law’, Cullinan highlights this with striking examples. The sources of our laws are entirely human and do not acknowledge the wider context of laws of nature. The equal right to existence for animals, insects, trees and all aspects of nature has not, for the most part, been recognized in human law*. Corporations and other human-made legal entities have extensive powers on the planet despite the fact that they “have no emotions, consciences, values, ethics or ability to commune” with other beings. The killing by humans of living ecosystems is not (yet) illegal**. Much of our law is based on philosophies from the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries that assume “we human beings exist only within our skins (i.e. that which is outside our skins is not us) and that we are the only beings or subjects in the universe.” despite the fact that science has already outgrown those philosophies and has evidenced the profound interconnectedness of all parts of the universe***.


The implications of this flawed basis for our legal and governance systems are serious. While each of us individually is responsible for our own worldview and living in accordance with it, collectively we are glued together, and forced to interact with each other, according to our laws. In a chapter on why law and jurisprudence (i.e. the theory of law) matter, Cullinan says “while the regulatory function of law is easy to see, we often overlook the fact that law plays an equally important role in constituting and forming society itself.”  We may not conduct our own lives according to an anthropocentric viewpoint but we are hemmed into a society, with its rules, laws and behaviors, which does. Symptoms of our defective governance systems that are familiar to us all are described in detail such as continued global warming and climate change as the Earth’s life-systems are deteriorating; ecological overshoot with human’s taking more from the Earth during a given period than we give back; overconsumption with excessive and unsustainable human demand for food, fresh water, timber, fibre and fuel; and the accelerating rate of mass extinctions of species living on the planet. It is self-evident that overall human wellbeing and happiness will decline when our natural environments are suffering in this way – because of the interconnectedness of phenomena we all feel this malaise even without a direct awareness of why or how it is happening.

In an insightful piece about why, when there is overwhelming evidence that our regulating systems are defective, our societies, and their governing and legal functions, are incredibly slow to recognize this and make changes, Cullinan explains that “… most of us have internalized the false beliefs and approaches on which may of our cultures are founded. We think in a dualistic way and firmly believe, for instance, that increased consumption is likely to increase personal happiness.” The challenge therefore is to start with a shift in perspective. Many of us are experiencing that shift individually and, in some areas of society, collectively. In ‘Transforming Justice, Lawyers and the Practice of Law’, an anthology reviewed in the second edition of ‘The Conscious Lawyer’, great emphasis was placed upon the need, within law and the legal profession, for contemplative practices to be integrated into law practice and education to help open up our awareness to these new and widened perspectives.

While the first one-third of the book describes ‘The world as we know it’, the second two-thirds offer a compelling vision, and much practical guidance, about Cullinan’s proposition for Earth Governance and Jurisprudence. One of the essential differences, he says, will be that human-made jurisprudence (what Cullinan describes as ‘Earth Jurisprudence’) will be embedded within, and be an extension of the unchanging laws of nature (‘Great Jurisprudence’). Earth Jurisprudence in this new system will offer a different view of human-made law in that it will be far more location and community specific – each community will be more intimately in tune, and in harmony, with their natural environment and understand what regulation is needed to maintain balance and integrity in that local system. An example of this type of jurisprudence can be seen in the work being done by Nature’s Rights and Mumta Ito in Frome, UK.

In a striking example of how natural human regulation could mirror our natural environments, Cullinan describes the intricate and precise patterning of a fern frond. He says: “The whole is effectively created by repetitions of the pattern of a central stem and branching veins, which is apparent in the smallest part of the leaf. Each part is simultaneously part of a coherent substructure and part of the whole.” We are part of nature and so our natural self-regulating behaviors could produce a similar result. Cullinan says: “It seems possible that if we start at ‘grass roots level’ where there is a greater degree of intimacy in relationships, we might find appropriate or inspirational models.” It seems to me that this is a huge vote of confidence and validation for the initiatives and individuals described in this magazine, and for the magazine itself. It begins to describe the impulses many of us are feeling to stop waiting for a change to happen to us from above but to begin, in whatever small we can, making that change happen ourselves.



Subscribe to access the fifth edition in full



Please share this article


FEATURE: The Human Shape of Justice

LAST MONTH, I WAS DRAWING A GAVEL.I was working in one...


Between September and December 2018, students of the Amsterdam Law School (UvA) and Architectural Design students of the Rietveld Academy engaged

FEATURE: Integrating Spirituality, Law, Politics and...

My journey to the study of evolution came through the court room, where I spent 20 years on the bench